2016: The Lows, and One Notable High, for Reproductive Justice in Congress

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2016: The Lows, and One Notable High, for Reproductive Justice in Congress

Christine Grimaldi

Studying the GOP's 2016 playbook is crucial to understanding what’s to come in the year ahead. Doing so also reveals Democrats’ strategies for taking a proactive approach on reproductive justice.

Republicans’ legislative efforts on abortion care, LGBTQ equality, and racial dignity—all pillars of reproductive justice—largely hinged on undermining rights and codifying discrimination in the final year of the 114th Congress.

Congressional Republicans have signaled that they’ll intensify these efforts under the GOP-controlled 115th Congress that begins January 3 and under President-elect Trump’s administration, beginning January 20. Studying the GOP’s 2016 playbook is crucial to understanding what’s to come in the year ahead; doing so also reveals potential strategies for taking a proactive approach on reproductive justice, even in an outright hostile environment.

Read along as Rewire recaps how Congress addressed reproductive justice in 2016.

The Lows

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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Planned Parenthood Investigations Culminate in $1.59 Million “Witch Hunt”

The Center for Medical Progress (CMP) in July 2015 gave congressional Republicans the manufactured evidence they needed to launch at least five investigations into Planned Parenthood.

Some abortion rights foes, including Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), coordinated with CMP prior to the release of widely discredited videos alleging that Planned Parenthood profited from fetal tissue donations. Three U.S. House of Representatives committees—Energy and Commerce, Judiciary, and Oversight and Government Reform—subsequently found no evidence of wrongdoing. That’s when House Republicans led a nearly party-line vote to create the so-called Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives, dedicated solely to the mission of proving the debunked allegations.

Under the leadership of Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), the panel became known for touting junk science, harassing abortion providers, targeting private companies that procure human tissue for medical research, and endangering researchers’ own privacy, safety, and job security. Rewire analyzed what appeared to be a close working relationship between Blackburn and David Daleiden, the architect of the heavily edited CMP video smear campaign, amid Blackburn’s continued reliance on factually inaccurate anti-choice media to justify the investigation.

Rewire broke the news that Republicans are spending $1.59 million on the panel through a budgetary shell game with taxpayer funds. Blackburn is supposed to release a final report by the end of the 114th Congress, bringing the panel’s activities to an end. She has yet to do so.

The radical anti-choice front group Operation Rescue is calling on House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) to extend the panel’s investigation into the 115th Congress. Republican leaders, including Ryan and outgoing Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Fred Upton (R-MI), a once-vocal proponent of fetal tissue research, have generally sought to distance themselves from the highly charged investigation, though Ryan this year praised Blackburn’s leadership. A senior GOP leadership aide would only repeat the party line, again telling Rewire that the panel will expire at the end of this Congress by operation of House rules.

Meanwhile, a fifth investigation in the U.S. Senate recently came to a head. Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley (R-IA) in December revealed that he had been investigating Planned Parenthood since the initial release of the discredited CMP videos, though his 547-page majority staff report led with a disclaimer distancing his analysis and findings from those of the anti-choice front group.

Grassley referred Planned Parenthood to the U.S. Department of Justice for a criminal investigation. A Justice Department spokesperson confirmed receipt of Grassley’s request but declined to comment further.

Religious Imposition Measures Gain Traction

Congressional Republicans tried, and failed, to pass a variety of religious imposition measures modeled after the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. (Check out Rewire’s new Religious Imposition tracker to monitor how these laws are sweeping through state legislatures across the nation.)

For much of the year, they focused on attempting to reverse President Obama’s 2014 executive order protecting LGBTQ federal contractors through an amendment to the House’s defense bill. Rep. Steve Russell (R-OK) crafted broad language that extended far beyond federal contract recipients and opened up many more groups of people to discrimination on the basis of gender identity, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, and reproductive health-care decisions.

House Democrats shamed Republicans in May for blocking an attempt to counter the Russell Amendment, and later that month threw the floor into disarray with their objections. Senate Democrats ramped up their opposition in the bipartisan, bicameral talks on a final defense bill. Negotiators ultimately dropped the amendment, though Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), who led the opposition, warned that the war against “sweeping taxpayer-funded discrimination” will likely continue into next year.

Other GOP-led efforts in the House sought to discriminate against marginalized people. House Republicans propped up the anti-LGBTQ First Amendment Defense Act (FADA) on the one-month anniversary of the Pulse nightclub massacre. They also forced through a vote on the Conscience Protection Act, legislation that would allow a broadened swath of health-care providers to sue if they’re supposedly coerced into providing abortion care or if they face discrimination for refusing to provide such care. Neither measure went anywhere; FADA remained merely the subject of a one-off committee hearing, and the Senate did not take up the Conscience Protection Act.

Congress Holds Hearings Mired in Racially Biased Anti-Abortion Myths

Franks, the representative who coordinated with the Center for Medical Progress, built on his notoriety for hosting anti-choice hearings that demean Black women and other people of color.

He led a hearing in April on legislation to ban sex- and race-selective abortion care that served as a forum for anti-choice misinformation. The legislation “perpetuates the offensive stereotype that Black women are unable to make reproductive health decisions for their own families,” said Miriam Yeung, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum. Franks followed up with a September hearing that advanced conservative and often racially biased anti-abortion myths about the Hyde Amendment and the so-called Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act.

Rep. Steve King (R-IA) perpetuated the same myths during the hearing until Kierra Johnson, executive director of the reproductive justice group URGE and the only witness to support abortion rights, spoke over him. “I would love to talk about Black communities, if you’d like me to,” Johnson said, as abortion rights supporters in the audience applauded.

As King attempted to exit the hearing, Rewire got him on the record to clarify his comments criticizing Black people for their constitutional right to assemble. King added abortion to his list of grievances against Black people.

One Notable High

Democrats Redefine Hyde and Reframe Barriers to Abortion Care

Congressional Democrats in 2016 further shifted the narrative around the Hyde Amendment, the ban on federal funds for abortion care. Democrats emphasized that what has been long accepted as a cost of doing business on Capitol Hill is in fact an “undue burden” on people with low incomes and people of color.

Their success served as a testament to the work of reproductive justice groups and initiatives led by Black women and women of color. These include the All* Above All coalition and the groups represented on the coalition’s steering committee: In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda, the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, the National Network of Abortion Funds (NNAF), the Reproductive Health Technologies Project, and URGE.

Support for the groundbreaking EACH Woman Act, legislation ensuring that all people have access to insurance coverage of abortion care, grew to 129 co-sponsors—more than two-thirds of the House Democratic caucus. The 2016 Democratic Party platform, for the first time, reflected this sentiment, calling for the repeal of Hyde. Lawmakers like Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) reinforced this message through appeals for intersectionality during the Democratic National Convention.

Back in Washington, Rewire examined whether abortion storytelling could break through politics as usual on the need for safe, legal abortion care. Rewire pointed to the work of the NNAF’s We Testify, an initiative with more than a dozen storytellers representing a wide range of identities, specifically those living at the intersections of multiple oppressions.

“When we have a chance to say, ‘We live in your district, we are here, we are visible, please recognize us,’ I think that is huge to begin with,” Renee Bracey Sherman, who runs We Testify, said in an interview. “And that’s something that you can’t really fight.”